As a winemaker, Pinot Noir is a great grape to work with if you love a challenge. In ideal conditions it produces a medium-bodied red wine with a subtle profile, not highly tannic or alcoholic, but it’s highly susceptible to climatic effects in the vineyard. Within that profile there’s also not much room for a winemaker to hide. If you manipulate Pinot Noir heavily in the cellar it can quickly become imbalanced and less Pinot Noir like. It challenges you to nurture it and not manipulate it.
Burgundy is the French wine region that made Pinot Noir renowned worldwide. The world’s most famous Pinot Noir vines grow there on a narrow, east-facing slope just South of Dijon. Burgundy is a very old wine region and was first tended by Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages. Pinot Noir itself is also believed to be a relatively ancient variety, at least hundreds of years older than most of the other current major commercial grape varieties. That longevity is likely the reason for Pinot Noir’s many twins and relatives (aka — clones and closely related varieties), like Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
I’m not a winemaker in France, however, here in California, Pinot Noir was first planted around 1880 and has traditionally been grown in coastal regions, and there is now a widespread belief that Pinot Noir will only thrive here on the coast. The reasons for that are linked to lower coastal temperatures and the moderating effects of the ocean. But Burgundy is not coastal, it has a semi oceanic continental climate. I believe there are many aspects of the climate here in El Dorado County at its higher elevations that will allow Pinot Noir to thrive here.
The cooler nights in El Dorado County prevent Pinot Noir from over-ripening as is the concern with lower elevation inland areas. In El Dorado County our mountain climate, with nearby snowpack and snowmelt creating rivers throughout the region, lends a moderating effect and prevents our days and nights from being too hot. Burgundy is also a mountainous region, with a strong climatic influence from the Saône River and its tributaries that run throughout the region.
Pinot Noir vines tend to prefer more intermediate climates with long, cool growing seasons. For this reason, you’ll often find Pinot Noir growing in protected valleys or near large bodies of water. In El Dorado County, Pinot Noir thrives best in the coolest vineyard sites on east facing slopes.
Pinot Noir is the world’s most popular light-bodied red wine. It’s loved for its red fruit, floral, and spice aromas accentuated by a long, smooth finish. Sure, there’s Gamay, Grenache, and other medium bodied reds, but Pinot Noir is capable of balanced tension and capturing the imagination like no other.
When tasting French Pinot Noir, you may note its more earthy and floral style. This is part of Burgundy’s terroir and winemaking technique. Many winemakers in Burgundy choose to ferment with whole grape clusters to increase tannin in their Pinot Noir wines. This effort may result in bitterness early on, but results in wines that age 20+ years.
By contrast, California Pinot Noir is typically rich, fruity, and lush. Ample sun and controlled temperatures make it easy for winemakers to pick at the perfect moment when ripeness is optimal. Besides layers of red or blue fruit flavors, many of these wines have subtle allspice undertones from aging in imported French oak barrels.
Pinot Noir is not a vigorous grape capable of producing many tons per acre at a high quality, so despite its appeal it will never be a workhorse. Instead, Pinot Noir is coveted and considered one of the Noble Grapes, worth spending time to contemplate and specialize in. I hope you’ll see why I enjoy making Pinot Noir so much!
Mica Raas, Winemaker